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Education was Idaho legislators’ priority this session

Sun., March 23, 2014

BOISE – Education funding took center stage at the Idaho Legislature this year.

Lawmakers nearly doubled Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed 2.9 percent increase in school funding, to $66 million. The cash infusion was an attempt to jump-start a series of reforms recommended by a state task force.

Legislators even ditched Otter’s call for $30 million in new tax cuts – and Otter agreed.

“I think that they found a better use for the money than tax relief this year,” Otter said. “In their wisdom and in my conclusion, I think they made the right decision.”

Still, Idaho’s school funding remains below where it was in 2009; so does the state’s overall budget. After years of deep cuts during an economic downturn, lawmakers this year barely started restoring some of the services they cut then.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, noted that the Legislature made no moves toward increasing road funding, updating state discrimination laws or expanding Medicaid, despite potential payoffs in both lives and dollars.

“It was no secret that the majority party put these issues aside because it’s an election year,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Nevertheless, said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, “We addressed some needs we’ve had to let go for a while.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, opposed the school funding increase – and most of the state agency budget bills. “They are unsustainable,” he said. “That’s a lot of taxpayer money.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said Idaho’s economy is rebounding, and it’s reflected in state revenues. While there are still “job challenges” in rural areas and in North Idaho, she added, “We were able to do a better education budget for K-12 – that’s a positive.”

This year’s session, at 74 days, was the shortest since 2004.

Otter and GOP legislative leaders called the session a success – in part because it wrapped up so swiftly.

“I think it was probably one of the smoothest sessions I’ve ever seen,” the governor said.

Otter called the school funding increase “a great start” and also touted unanimous passage of a criminal justice reinvestment plan aimed at heading off the need for a costly new state prison; new business tax credit incentive legislation for companies that create large numbers of higher-paying jobs in the state; and funding for water projects and wolf control.

Three high-profile issues drew hundreds to the state Capitol this year to testify or protest. One, expanding the state’s anti-discrimination law to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” never got a hearing; there were roughly 180 arrests over the course of the session when protesters pressing for the change refused to leave the Capitol.

The other two, a controversial bill to allow guns on Idaho college campuses and a measure to criminalize surreptitious videotaping of agricultural operations, both passed into law despite vocal opposition.

Retiring Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said, “If I could be king for a day, I would’ve had a hearing on ‘Add the Words.’ I would’ve just dealt with it. I think that people should never be discriminated against, no matter who they are or what they believe. I think that we should be mindful of discrimination in all forms. But I’m not king for the day.”

Retiring Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, the Legislature’s oldest member at age 91, said he counted the business tax incentive legislation as his highlight for the session.

“If I’d have done anything different, I’d have not broken my hip – that really slowed me down,” Henderson said on the session’s final day; he missed the first three weeks of the session due to the injury.

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